Disney Musical 'Into the Woods' Swoops Into Awards Season — How Far Can It Go?

Standouts in 'Chicago' helmer Rob Marshall's latest Broadway adaptation, unveiled Saturday, include 'Devil Wears Prada' co-stars Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep

And then there was just one unseen Oscar contender. Unbroken.

On Saturday evening, Disney unveiled the second-to-last of the major Oscar hopefuls that had not yet been been seen by pundits, Rob Marshall's Into the Woods, at simultaneous screenings on both coasts, followed by a Q&A — live in New York, streamed in Los Angeles — with Marshall, screenwriter James Lapine and stars Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski. (Johnny Depp was the only notable absence.)

It marked the beginning of what will be an aggressive awards push by Disney for the highly-anticipated adaptation of the popular 1987 Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Lapine. And Disney is as motivated as ever following a disappointing 2013 awards season in which Saving Mr. Banks was almost entirely snubbed by the Academy.

Read more 'Into the Woods': Stephen Sondheim, Original Stars Reunite for First Time in 27 Years

But, even with an all-out push, how far can they take this one?

Bet on it to be a major player at the Golden Globes, which splits its picture and lead acting categories into two so that it can highlight as many musicals/comedies as dramas — indeed, Corden, Blunt and Streep could all land acting noms at the Globes, and the film itself might even give Birdman a run for its money for the top prize, since the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association seem to love good musicals even more than good dramedies. (Recently: Les Miserables defeated Silver Linings Playbook, Sweeney Todd defeated Juno, Dreamgirls defeated Little Miss Sunshine, Moulin Rouge! defeated Gosford Park, etc.)

But how about at the Oscars? Will Academy members respond to it as they did to Marshall's 2002 feature directorial debut Chicago, which won six of the 13 Oscars for which it was nominated, including best picture, and effectively jump-started a revival of the movie musical? Or will they respond as they did to his Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Nine (2009), which many expected to be similar powerhouses, but which enjoyed success almost exclusively in below-the-line categories (Memoirs won for cinematography, art direction and costume design, and was also nominated for original score, sound mixing and sound editing; while Nine earned noms for supporting actress Penelope Cruz, song, art direction and costume design)? Or will the Academy treat it like his most recent work, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), which failed to register at all?

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My guess is somewhere between example one and example two — it doesn't strike me as a serious threat to win best picture, but it could certainly be among the category's nominees and show up in a host of other categories, as well.

Into the Woods is relatively straightforward family entertainment — if also a little darker than most Disney pics and without the happily-ever-after ending that one has come to expect from them. Academy members may feel it lacks the gravitas and a sense of really being about something, even subtextually, that most major Oscar players possess — but what it does have going for it, perhaps above all else, is a sense of playfulness and fun that is sorely lacking in the rest of this year's otherwise dour field of contenders. Also, like all Marshall films, its music and crafts are first-rate, and I suspect it will seriously contend for cinematograhpy, costume design, makeup and hairstyling, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and maybe even visual effects noms.

Could it land an acting nom, as the vast majority of best picture nominees do? It's possible. Blunt and Streep — reunited on screen for the first time since The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 — are its best hopes. Blunt is competing in the best actress category, which is weak to an almost unprecedented degree this year, so she could slip in for the role of The Baker's Wife that brought Joanna Gleason a best actress in a musical Tony for the original Broadway production (the sole acting prize it won). But Streep is an even better bet for a nom in the supporting category — which would extend her record number of acting noms to 19 — not just because her competition is also thin, but because she steals every scene in which she appears as The Witch, chewing scenery, performing all sorts of business and proving, even more than she did in 2008's Mamma Mia!, that she can really sing.

Also very good, but possibly without enough screen time to seriously contend in their respective best supporting categories, are Kendrick, who has previously demonstrated a nice voice (see Pitch Perfect and the forthcoming fall fest acquisition The Last Five Years), and Pine, who has not, but who demonstrates, in a few humorous scenes, that he has some pipes of his own.

Musicals rarely make the cut in the directing and adapted screenplay categories — Chicago was the last to be represented in each, 12 years ago — so I wouldn't bet too much on that happening, regardless of what plays out in the best picture race.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

 

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